COCOA BEACH – Maybe it was because the storm was forecast to make landfall 80 miles away, or the storm didn’t seem much in a hurry to become a hurricane, or that it was occurring in November or that Ian had been billed as bad but didn’t do squat.
With those excuses and more, Hurricane Nicole didn’t seem worth the focus and effort of a hurricane party or boarding up windows, much less leaving for a safer place from communities along Brevard County’s barrier island facing vulnerably to the Atlantic Ocean.
Seemingly everyone sized up Nicole as a pretender – sort of. The big question Wednesday was storm surge. Would it rip apart even the dunes covered in tough thickets of seagrapes and chomp off the end of the Cocoa Beach Pier, home to the Rikki Tiki Tavern?
“It’s a waiting game,” said a security guard at the entrance of the closed pier.
Already at sunrise Wednesday, about 24 hours before Nicole’s peak winds were to arrive, the ocean’s gray fury carried the sound of jetliners at Orlando International Airport.
Parades of residents and tourists ventured to the Cocoa Beach pier, Satellite Beach’s Hightower Beach and several other smaller beach parks, curious about reports of waves 15 to 25 feet offshore.
“The waves are blown out,” said Kevin Ossman, a Satellite Beach resident and surfer.
“It’s whitewater,” said his friend, Angel.
“Nothing’s rideable,” Ossman said. “If anyone goes out there, they’ll get messed up.”
Many spectators could recite the same data points: high tide, peaking winds and storm surge and a full-ish moon could really wreck Brevard’s parks, boardwalks and beaches.
At high tide Wednesday morning, the Hightower Beach Park boardwalk took a licking, resulting in destruction of its lower ramp.
At low tide Wednesday afternoon, waves were shoveling up so much raging surf against the beach that it looked to many people, including locals, like high tide.
The meaning of that was plain: high tide’s arrival Wednesday night would be incredibly high and probably attack the protective dunes.
Satellite Beach’s assistant city manager, Brittany Retherford, surveyed the damage to the Hightower boardwalk early Wednesday afternoon and estimated it would take months to repair.
Hightower Beach Park is famous among surfers and one of the city’s most popular destinations.
But Retherford worried that the boardwalk, providing a path over a significant dune, might not survive the night.
A man nearby, who identified himself as “just Mike” and a Satellite Beach resident since 1965, said “with the full moon tonight, the storm surge is going to tear up all this dune.”
Brevard’s beaches were ominous and inhospitable, and raked by quick but intense squalls.
In some places, big slabs of sea foam had marrooned like corpses. Elsewhere fresh spurts of sea foam raced along beaches, only to be scoured into nothing by streamers of windblown sand.
But not very far away along State Road A1A, the main artery along the beach, the threat of Nicole was provoking an uneven shrug.
The IHOP was closed; the Waffle House was open. Publix closed at noon; Lowes would stay open until 10 a.m.
At one 7-Eleven, a pair of gas pumps were girdled with clear plastic wrap. A handwritten paper sign saying “Close (sorry)” was taped to the front door.
At another 7-Eleven, where business was steady, clerk Ashley Farris said she lives a block and half from the ocean’s edge and, unlike with Ian, she wasn’t going anywhere for Nicole.
“I’ve got a grill and charcoal and it’s not bothering me thinking about staying,” said Farris, who added the potential for storm surge did make her a little nervous.
At the Slide Inn Bar and Grill in Cape Canaveral, few parking spots were available. It’s a locals’ place.
Bartender Amanda Tucker was off duty, standing next to the bar on the customer side. The tumbler of liquor and liqueur arrived for her on a drink coaster.
It was about 4 p.m. and she normally drinks Michelob Ultra light beer. “I’m just getting started,” she said, meaning she potentially had hours to go.
“We will be open until the lights go out,” Tucker said, which could be as late as the actual closing time of 2 a.m. By then, winds were forecast to be pretty brisk. She didn’t make it sound like bravado defiance of Nicole, but more of an annoyance the cash registers would stop working.
Ak Patel, owner of the Econo Lodge in Cocoa Beach, said the small hotel normally becomes a refuge, filling with guests who live nearby when a major storm approaches. He also covers his office windows with plywood and anchors his highway sign with stout ropes.
Neither happened with Nicole. “We’ve seen category 1 storms so many times,” Patel said.